The Sherpa: victims of their own success?

Today I would like to provide you with some details about the Sherpa, one of the ethnic minorities living in republican China- around 2600 live in the People’s Republic of China, and there is a total of approximately 180.000 Sherpa in the world. The word Sherpa means people from the East, which makes reference to the area they live in. Most of the Sherpa live in the Himalayas, although they are starting to suffer the effects of migration attempting to obtain a better life. The Sherpas are presumed to have originally been a nomadic culture. It seems likely that the left their home lands in the Khan region in the 16th century for the Nepalese area due to warfare, hence why their language, despite being Tibetan, is not like that of the rest of the Nepalese society. The 18th century presence of the British in Daarjelin attracted the attention of many Sherpa, who offered their services to the Empire for seasonal employment and a chance of better income into their households. This was a very important factor in the development of what nowadays is the Sherpas best known activity: professional mountaineering.

In fact some of the most famous Sherpa owe their renown to mountaineering. Such is the case of Tenzing Norgay, who climbed the Everest in 1953 with the expedition of Sir Edmund Hillary. Many other Sherpa have got to the top of this mountain and many others. This is a result of their live in high altitudes. As that is a common feature of their everyday life, they are well prepared and knowledgeable of the skills required in hiking, climbing, examining the landscape and weather conditions for the purpose of professional mountaineering…This is in fact the job of many in current times. They play a crucial role in the expeditions to the highest mountains in the world.

We know some other details about their culture, such as their clothing and religious believe. Male Sherpa tend to wear something called chhuba (long-sleeved robes) on top of a raatuk (shirt), as well as a piece called kanam (trousers) and a type of jacket named tetung. The women wear very long dresses known as tongkok, and aprons; metil and gewe for the front and the back, hold together with silver buckles called kyetig. Their religious belief is quite interesting. Most Sherpa practice Buddhism, particularly a Tibetan sect known with the name of “The Red Hat Sect”. This sect was founded in the 8th century and borrows many elements from the local pre-Buddhist traditions, deities and shamanistic rituals. For reasons that will now seem obvious, it has a deep connection with their environment, especially mountains (mountains are supposed to bring you closer to enlightenment, so we can understand that the altitude at which these people live is quite important not only for their economy, but for their culture in general). This also explain why their approach to climbing and mountain expeditions is different from the Western ideas, as to reach Nirvana you require to do actions for others in a very altruistic fashion. Apart from that, we know that some Sherpa worship other cults, but these can be considered minority religions amongst them. The other two main cults that have Sherpa followers are Catholicism and Hinduism.

Nonetheless, and despite how lovely and peaceful this life in the mountains may seem to accommodated people of the West like us, it is not all good and “gravy”. Tourism to the Nepal areas has had a huge impact in the lifestyle of these people in last half of the 20th century and the 21st. On top of that, there is the ongoing tension between China and Nepal (especially now that the Chinese government has announced their desire to create what I like to call “Buddha-land”). These people are effectively caught in the middle of disguised communism and aggressive capitalism, different cultures, and pressures. Moreover, accidents within the sphere of professional mountaineering make their prestige crumble. In 2010 the team of the Spanish mountaineer Tolo Calafat, suffered a terrible incident when climbing the Annapurna. As a result he died, and many of his companions, several Sherpa included suffered his very same fate. Much controversy was arose about the fact of how much are worth the lives of Sherpa, or how easy they are to bribe to go to places they otherwise won’t, if it wasn’t for the non-sensical desire of their patrons. They are victims of their own success and their own circumstances. They live between to opposite worlds that pull the strings in different directions, leaving them exposed to the cruel reality: the life of a minority group, of any kind, is tough.


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